If you were looking for the most popular sports game on Facebook, you would be forgiven for expecting to see some of the industry's evergreen brands: the Pro Evos, the Maddens, the FIFAs. Time and again, the IPs that so dominate established platforms struggled to make a significant mark on the ubiquitous social network - during its short, meteoric boom or its subsequent precipitous decline. As companies like EA faltered, the day was won by the start-ups and the no-names.
Nordeus is a prime example. Founded in Belgrade, Serbia in March 2010, the company's first (and currently only) game, the football management sim Top Eleven, has proved to be one of Facebook's enduring sports titles. "In the first year after launching Top Eleven there was some competition, but shortly after that we surpassed EA and everybody else," says Nikola Cavic, head of business development at Nordeus. "Soon it was 10 million players for us and 1 million players for them. The licensing and the brand matters - it helps to attract people - but it's not only about that."
"We're not in your face about monetisation. We want you to play, and if you like it, you can give something back to the developers"
Since launching Top Eleven on iOS and Android at the end of 2011, Nordeus has managed to find further growth, even as Facebook as a gaming platform has shown signs of decline. Cavic claims that Top Eleven has been downloaded on mobile platforms around 20 million times. It currently boasts more than 12 million MAUs and 5 million DAUs, and the bulk of this popularity was built without huge investments in player acquisition.
Cavic offers a clue as to the reason why. Prior to joining Nordeus, Cavic worked at Iceland's CCP Games for almost seven years, taking a variety of roles in the company's marketing department before landing the role of senior sales manager. His experience handling EVE Online taught him the value of working closely with a community of players, and the sort of long-term success that can provide.
"The common ground I tried to establish when I came over to Nordeus was to bring the experience I had with opening up communication with EVE Online's players," he says. "I wanted to bring that over, because there aren't that many free-to-play games that really build a community."
The reason, Cavic says, is that most free-to-play games are built on the assumption that players will only stay for a few months, before being replaced by another wave of potential spenders. This is directly tied to the way many free-to-play games are designed, prodding the player for money to maximise revenue before the expected shelf-life of each expires.
"We don't have that assumption," says Cavic. "We adopt a different approach, and you can tell that from our community. On our Facebook fan page, we are just about to hit 10 million fans [it has since risen to more than 10.2 million]. And we're not just after people to hit 'Like' - we have events, we have contests, we talk to them.
"If you look at the top-ten list of countries for Top Eleven, you will see Brazil, there's Argentina, there's Turkey, there's Indonesia"
"Nordeus does things differently. Even today, we never ask you to advance the gameplay by inviting your friends. Also, it's free to play, but all of the features are available from the start. We're not in your face about monetisation. We want you to play, and if you like it, you can give something back to the developers."
Whatever can be said about the ethics of free-to-play - and at this point it feels that pretty much everything has - Nordeus has found impressive levels of engagement in its audience. Out of 12 million MAUs, Cavic tells me, more than half login to Top Eleven more than 100 times every month - more evidence that a quality product and strong communication with its players are essential to making free-to-play work.
But Top Eleven is interesting not just for its large community of players, but where those players are located. Rather than start with the typical gaming markets in Europe and North America, Nordeus made emerging markets its top priority. Football is the most popular sport on Earth, after all, striking a nerve in countries where many game companies would never consider releasing their products. Konami's dedication to licensing South American leagues and players in Pro Evolution Soccer, for example, is the reason why it handily outsells FIFA in Brazil, and why Konami has a larger market share in the country than Activision or EA.
"If you look at the top-ten list of countries for Top Eleven, you will see Brazil, there's Argentina, there's Turkey, there's Indonesia," says Cavic. "That's one of the big reasons for our success. We localise the game in 40 languages, and we make a lot of effort to grow the community and give local support to those markets. When you put in that sort of effort, it's really appreciated by those audiences around the world."
"We think it's realistic to go for 10 per cent of the total male market in any country. In some markets, we actually have higher percentages than that"
The games business is notoriously fickle. Even the products currently riding high at the top of the charts will enter an inevitable decline. Supercell will eventually have to find a follow-up for Clash of Clans, and it won't be easy to replicate that success. Rovio was faced with the same problem, and chose merchandising and animated films over new games IP. Success is fleeting, particularly in free-to-play, but Cavic believes that sports games have a unique chance at longevity.
The interest in real-world football is stronger than ever, truly global, and unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future. Cavic sees no reason why the same can't be true of a football game.
"We're seeing this already with Top Eleven," he says. "We're already past the third year. The game needs to be updated all the time, obviously, to keep up with the market. We need to be on new platforms and devices.
"It also help to have the official licenses for clubs. It makes it more authentic, in a sense. It helps with the engagement of the players. If they can be their favourite club, they're more likely to play it and to show it off."
"We think it's realistic to go for 10 per cent of the total male market in any country. In some markets, we actually have higher percentages than that. It's football, you know - we have 12 million players right now, but football is watched and played by billions of people."